Edible Monterey Bay

Controversy Over PG Al Fresco and Other Reopening Adventures

June 16, 2020 – It turns out that the most redeeming—and challenging—thing about a global pandemic is learning to do things we’ve never done, whether that’s as humble as learning to give yourself a haircut or as massive as tearing down systemic inequities.

Last weekend much of the country, the tri-county area included, embarked on one such challenge with its own degree of difficulty: reopening hospitality safely.

Outdoor dining on Lighthouse Ave. in Pacific Grove (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

It was not without controversy and full of frontiers, as two cities repurposed their main thoroughfares to allow guests to dine in the middle of the road. 

Who would’ve guessed that one of the outcomes of COVID-19 would be drinking sangria in the streets of California’s last dry town?

Here appears a chronological look at how things went as Monterey Bay’s restaurants and bars traversed Phase 3:

4:30pm Wednesday, June 10

Before anyone embarked on official reopening, Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams assembled a blue-ribbon Zoom panel of local decision makers. “It’s going to be difficult for many to re-engage with face-to-face activities,” she said in her opening remarks. “I’m hoping that by the end of this webinar, you know what’s safe, and what you can do.”

Mirabel Hotel & Restaurant Group CEO David Fink described standard protocols at Aubergine and Cantinetta Luca, including extensive staff training, masks for any guests leaving their table, reduced capacity and spaced tables. He added they’re also conducting health questionnaires with guests 24 hours before their visit.

“We’ve always been very clean, but now we’re as clean as can possibly be,” he said. “We’re proud of that.”

Del Monte Center Property Manager Denae DiBenedetto detailed accelerated restroom cleaning schedules, sanitation stations and special hours for at-risk shoppers. 

Portola Hotel GM Janine Chicourrat described comprehensive communication with incoming guests to make sure they’re completely in sync with strict distancing and mask requirements. “We’re in the service industry,” she said. “We’re here to take care of people and our employees.”

Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau President Rob O’Keefe emphasized mindful behavior above all else, citing the bureau’s new Responsibility Matters promotional campaign to encourage locals and regional “drive markets” to enjoy the area, particularly outdoors, while following CDC guidelines.

Finally Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Geraldine C. Taplin weighed in on the “three Cs.”

“Contact, crowds and confinement,” she said. “Those are the three main things to avoid.”

2am Friday, June 12

I have a COVID-19 nightmare. For some reason I’m on a family vacation with a weird medley of single friends and families. Kids I vaguely recognize but can’t place are crawling all over me. People keep popping into my personal space to ask me silly questions. I catch myself spraying a little spit as I ask everybody where my face mask went. I can’t find it.

2pm Friday, June 12

Driving through Sand City on a Friday afternoon delivers a vision I wasn’t expecting: Post No Bills Craft Beer House co-owner Kye Ricks and longtime beertender Erich Weingand hanging on the patio outside the brew bar, beers in hand.

After scratching out an existence in recent weeks with growler and bottle service to-go, PNB can now use the ample patio space to match its old capacity, thanks to a 60-day temporary use permit from the city (which they hope to extend), while maintaining six feet between customers indoors and out. 

Traditional hours have returned, though the patio shuts down at dusk.

“I won’t use the word ‘normal,’ but it felt more normal than anything in a long time,” co-owner Michael Kohler says. “By and large people were patient and understood new protocols need to be enforced. Keeping everyone safe is by far our number one priority.

“When people get drinking [protocols] can be harder to apply, but we were there to gently remind them.”

6pm Friday, June 12

After a few weeks of planning, Pacific Grove introduced P.G. Al Fresco, closing off vehicle traffic between Forest and 16th and between Grand and Fountain for pedestrians only. Restaurants were invited to populate the street with tables and chairs, which many did, while cornhole boards and live acoustic music joined the party.

The effect was visibly vibrant. In front of Poppy Hall locals danced while guests dined at tables and around fire pits. After applying for a booth permit—participating restaurants need not be located downtown—Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant was serving freshly deep-fried wild mushrooms with a range of wines, English Ales and lively sangria. Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar’s patio was abuzz with socially distant and devoutly enthusiastic eaters. 

Jazz quartet Andrea’s Fault entertained in Pacific Grove (photo: Mark C, Anderson)

At Wild Fish, proprietor Liz Jacobs hustled to add more tables to the street as more people arrived. I grazed on a fresh-from-the-bay, whole-grilled mackerel served over lemon yogurt with Italian-style salsa verde. Andrea’s Fault provided live jazz standards, with Andrea Carter on vocals/guitar/percussion, Darrin Michel on vocals/guitar, Rick Chelew on bass and Ben Herod on sax and clarinet. 

“Hello humans,” Chelew said before they began. “We missed you.”

Wild Fish’s business was up 60 percent month-to-month pre-pandemic—and they were poised to build out an oyster bar—when March 17 shutdowns zapped 90 percent of revenue. In the ensuing weeks, an interesting innovation helped keep them afloat: Credibles is a web-based platform that essentially allows supporters to pre-pay for specially discounted meals they would enjoy post-reopening. Jacobs says it helped them raise $8,000.

Now that distanced dine-in and al fresco are here, Jacobs and her husband Kelvin feel well-suited to innovate since they do that in crafting menus based on what Real Good Fish brings them each day.

“If we learn to do things a little different and learn how to be a little more creative, this disruption can be a healthy thing,” Kelvin says. “One of the things you have to do with a business is constantly rethink things. Since we do fresh, local and available, we’re doing that constantly.”

On the other side of Lighthouse, another local and sustainable seafood institution plans to add outdoor dining, but for now is getting creative indoors. Passionfish hung nearly 30 clear shower curtains between diners seated at every other table, required all staff to wear masks, and asked guests to check in individually. After chef-owner Ted Walter survived a double lung transplant last year, his vulnerability to COVID-19 made those steps a natural precaution.

While the citizenry and business owners I encountered on Lighthouse were all smiles, not everyone is loving the al fresco action, and a fight is brewing. On Friday, just before 5pm—and before the fun got going—the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce sent out an email opposing the 30-day PG Al Fresco, citing lack of planning and transparency and the need for parking, and calling for the City Council to reject the temporary action at their regular meeting on June 17. 

This despite the fact a number of chamber member restaurants, dangling on the brink of survival, openly love the concept and had their best weekend in months.

2:30pm Saturday, June 11

Carmel-by-the-Sea is humming. The beach is dotted with people, who from the road above appear to be distancing. Sidewalk and street traffic is robust, albeit not as thick as it was Memorial Day weekend. 

At Sunset Center, Executive and Artistic Director Christine Sandin personally checks tickets (while wearing a mask) for cars arriving for a matinee drive-in socially distanced showing of 2011’s The Muppets. At one point Fozzie Bear asks a question that, if you squint, seems appropriate for times in which we’re asked to tolerate disruptions to the routine on behalf of the greater good. 

“What’s worse, Kermit?” Fozzie says. “Briefly inconveniencing Jack Black or destroying the Muppets?”

Sunset Center in Carmel is hosting drive in movies in its parking lot (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

6:30pm Saturday, June 11

Inside a roped area that extends halfway across Broadway Avenue and Obama Way, a mix of younger adults sit on the pavement talking and drinking craft I Need Honey and Sunbelt beers from the relatively new Other Brother Beer Company. A duo plucks acoustic tunes, and a table of slightly spaced apart restaurant professionals toast a sunny Saturday in the street.

“Hey hey, good news,” OBBC wrote earlier that day on Instagram. “The City of Seaside has decided to shut down Broadway and allow businesses to extend seating into the street…block party!”

Across the street, Las Cazuelas Taqueria migrated tables into the street and served potato tacos dorados and ceviche tostadas. Down Broadway, 20- and 30-somethings parked their bikes, sat on the curb and shared garlic knots from The Oven Pizzeria.

Per the city’s website, the “On Broadway” evenings will continue Saturday nights starting at 5pm. 

“Support local businesses, eat delicious food and enjoy Seaside ‘On Broadway,’” it reads. “Dine, drink and be thankful.”

Musicians add to the lively street scene on Broadway in Seaside (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

7am Sunday, June 14

The New York Times is among those who report that an increased amount of diagnosed cases is a surefire effect of reopening.

“The warning that echoed ominously for weeks is becoming a reality: Once states begin to reopen, a surge in coronavirus cases will follow,” write Remy Tumin and Elijah Walker.

“Thousands of Americans have been sickened by the virus in new outbreaks, particularly in the Sun Belt and the West. As of Friday, coronavirus cases were climbing in 22 states amid reopenings. Arizona, Texas and Florida are reporting their highest case numbers yet.”

The piece noted California and Washington have reopened in “a more incremental way,” but have still seen an uptick in cases. 

The same day these reports emerged, Florida nearly doubled its previous all-time high case load for a single day.

That reminded me of something restaurateur Rich Pepe told Edible as Carmel was the first to allow curbside dining and people flocked to the tiny city in alarming clumps. 

“The last thing we want to do is be involved in any kind of infection,” he said. “We’re going to be ultra-conservative in how we follow the rules, and really work to evolve our to-go game.”

11am Monday, June 15

After Carmel restaurant The Tuck Box made national news for defying state and county stay-at-home regulations, the District Attorney’s office announced owner Jeffrey Le Towt and The Tuck Box are on the hook for up to $35,000 in fines for providing dine-in restaurant service before it was permitted by emergency heath orders. The restaurant also failed to follow social distancing and mask guidelines inside and outside the restaurant, according to District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni.

Dining along Ocean Ave. in Carmel last weekend (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

“It remains critical that individuals and businesses continue to follow the state and local COVID-19 emergency health orders,” she said in a statement. “The District Attorney’s Office will continue to respond to complaints regarding businesses violating the emergency health orders, including the social distancing protocols. 

“We are all in this fight against COVID-19 together, and we must continue to look out for each other. Thank you to everyone who is doing their part.”

Noon Monday, June 15

Monterey County Vintners and Growers announces with a press release that Monterey Wine Country is joining a far-reaching Wine On Earth Taste-A-Thon with some of the most celebrated wine regions in the world. The day-long event goes down Wednesday, June 17, with online tastings organized by wine producers and trade associations across 15 wine regions in eight countries, namely Australia, France, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and the United States.

Bernardus Winery, Carmel Road, Caraccioli Cellars, DeTierra Vineyards, I. Brand & Family, Joyce Wine Company and more local brands will host 22 virtual tastings throughout the day through the Monterey Wines YouTube channel. (Schedules can be found on MCVGA’s Facebook and Instagram feeds.)

“During this global pandemic, we realize how much we are all connected and just how much we miss raising a glass together in person,” MCVG chief Kim Stemler says. “This international virtual tasting is one way the world of wine can come together to share. Monterey Wine Country is thrilled to participate.”

Stemler also reports member wineries are slowly starting to reopen, though many remain closed. Those who are open are operating on limited hours and/or only by reservation—and many are selling out all their private reservation slots. Status and schedules for wineries is also available via those social media channels and the MCVGA website. 

“Everybody is so happy to be open,” Stemler says.